BANGKOK, Thailand -- On 2 March 2020, Manushya Foundation convened a meeting with experts from diverse Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), grassroots communities and academia to discuss the sustainability of the CSO sector in Thailand, covering the year 2019. The meeting was a unique opportunity for Thai CSOs to examine and assess the strength and overall viability of the CSO sector, and to determine whether CSOs' sustainability had improved or deteriorated compared to 2018.
The experts who attended the meeting represent a broad spectrum of CSO actors, including academics and representatives of local and international human rights organizations, advocacy groups, community-based organizations, grassroots, and informal networks; covering sectors such as the environment, LGBTI rights, women’s rights, health, safe abortion, freedom of expression, migrants’ rights, land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and others. The experts were invited to assess the sustainability of the Thai CSO sector through a scoring system developed by USAID that looks at seven dimensions: legal environment, organizational capacity, financial viability, advocacy, service provision, sectoral infrastructure, and public image of CSOs.
Throughout the discussion, the experts shared their point of view about the situation of CSOs and their organization’s own experiences regarding improvements and/or deteriorations of the CSO sector’s sustainability. The invaluable input provided by experts during this meeting will inform the 2019 Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI) Report for Thailand, which is for the second year in a row being developed by Manushya Foundation. The report of 2018 developed by Manushya Foundation can be accessed here.
In opening remarks, Ms. Laura Pavlovic, Director of the General Development Office, USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia, explained that this expert panel discussion provides an opportunity for civil society actors and donors to reflect on challenges and progress made in 2019, to consider the overall state of the sector, and provide an insight into how CSOs and donors can collaborate to support and strengthen the civil society sector.
After Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Director and Founder, Manushya Foundation, explained the scoring methodology and provided the experts with an overview of important facts, events, and cases of 2019 that impacted the civil society sector’s civic space, the discussion was then kicked off by moderators Ms. Suphamat Phonphra, Program Officer, Manushya Foundation, and Ms. Nattaporn Artharn, Ban Na Moon-Dunsad Environmental Conservation Group.
First of all, experts discussed the legal environment in which CSOs operate, and the majority of them agreed that even though in 2019 elections occurred in March 2019 and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) was dissolved and numerous NCPO Orders were revoked in July, the legal environment had deteriorated compared to 2018. Experts pointed out that CSOs had to comply with many government’s rules and regulations, which significantly restricted their freedom. For example, Mr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, noted that after elections, the government continued to use the term ‘attitude adjustment’ to invite people to military camps. He explained that this had worsened because the government used its own interpretations of laws or claimed that cases were related to Article 116, Sedition, of the Penal Code. Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Migrant Workers Federation, provided the perspective of migrant workers and explained that the registration process for migrants worsened in 2019, which was caused by the government’s push for policies promoting ‘Thailand 4.0’ and by discriminating laws, such as the Management of Foreign Workers Act of 2017, which provides ‘special treatments’ for migrants from certain countries, while excluding other migrants.
Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Founder of Justice for Peace Foundation and Former Human Rights Commissioner of NHRCT
“Even though Article 44 was revoked and some NCPO Orders have been repealed in 2019, the actions and consequences of the orders remain the same and human rights defenders are still being sued. The situation might look good on paper but in practice actually nothing has improved.”
Mr. Direk Hamnakorn, Green Global Network
“We were visited by security forces and told to shut down immediately. Without any prior notice, they came to check our documents, our financial transactions, financial status, and teaching status. This method is the opposite of what normal procedures should look like in terms of checking financial status.”
Continuing, experts discussed the organizational capacity of the civil society sector. Overall, experts assessed that their capacity had decreased in 2019 compared to the previous year. Ms. Piyanut Kotsan, Amnesty International Thailand, explained that her organization experienced challenges in hiring and maintaining full time staff due to limited financial resources, and staff members experienced low levels of well-being. Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Working Group for Monitoring on International Mechanisms, added that in Thailand’s Southern Provinces, CSOs had to rely on a culture of volunteers and had difficulties to attract young people into the sector because they are occupied with studies and work. Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, added the challenge that younger generations have not faced problems themselves, and therefore, they do not have the heart to fulfill the work voluntarily.
Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Migrant Workers Federation
“Labour unions faced challenges because as the economy worsened in 2019, workers had less resources and time to volunteer for unions and make their issues with respect to labour heard.”
FUNDING / FINANCIAL VIABILITY
Discussing whether civil society actors had sufficient access to funding, experts assessed that this aspect had worsened in 2019 compared to 2018 as they had faced increasing struggles to receive funding, both from domestic and international donors. Many groups were unable to access funding due to increasing restrictions and requirements, such as being registered. Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Founder of Justice for Peace Foundation and Former Human Rights Commissioner of NHCRT, explained that donors did not consider the sustainability or effectiveness of the activities they fund but instead focused on less important aspects, such as well written reports, which made it hard for grassroots to access funding and to operate. Ms. Wanitchaya Kanthayuang, Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand, pointed out that even though numerous organizations provided funding to women’s groups, indigenous women were unable to access such funding due to restrictive requirements and high competition with other women’s groups. Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, added that in Northeastern Thailand also various domestic funds are available to develop communities, however, as a sub-village without village head, her community had no access to such funds.
Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Working Group for Monitoring on International Mechanisms
“Most donors only provide funding to registered organizations, therefore, we were unable to access funding and had to rely on donations. Every year we struggle to receive funding and we have to screen the funding criteria from all donors to see if we meet any.”
Continuing, experts discussed CSOs’ ability to engage in advocacy activities and the effectiveness of such activities in 2019. All experts pointed out that while they had expected that advocacy would improve after the elections in March 2019, it had not: the Palang Pracharath Party operated exactly as the NCPO, policies and laws had remained the same, and the government was not open to input from civil society. Therefore, experts assessed that their advocacy worsened in 2019 compared to 2018. Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, noted that their network, P-Move, had provided the parliament with input with respect to three new forest-related Acts which would impact the livelihoods of the communities they work with, however, the Network was continuously rejected and their input was not considered. On the other hand, Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Working Group for Monitoring on International Mechanisms, pointed out that after the elections, CSOs had more advocacy channels such as members of parliament of opposition parties, who were willing to listen to CSOs. Mr. Sirisak Chaited, independent LGBT and sex worker activist, shared his experience advocating for LGBT issues and explained that political parties tried to use him as a tool and wanted him to join their party.
Ms. Supecha Baotip, Tamtang
“Advocacy was challenging because we did not have sufficient staff and they already had to manage multiple tasks. On top of that, the public might not understand the issues related to safe abortion we tried to communicate.”
Mr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University
“For students, there are guidelines from the Ministry of Education that limit their rights to participate and engage with CSOs, and verbal announcements were given to university directors. On top of that, even after the elections, police continued to monitor events taking place inside, and outside universities. Such events should be allowed. The situation has not improved at all.”
Ms. Wanitchaya Kanthayuang, Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand
“Authorities tried to stop me from engaging in advocacy activities, they added me on Facebook and they threatened me, saying ‘If you die, who would take care of your children?’ I have to take care of my security and nobody can guarantee my safety, therefore it is very difficult for us to engage in advocacy.”
Continuing, the experts assessed CSOs’ ability to provide services to their beneficiaries in 2019. Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Migrant Workers Federation, pointed out that even though their organization had limited resources, volunteers worked tirelessly everyday without holidays in order to ensure that the required services were provided to migrant workers and therefore service provision had remained the same. On the other hand, Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, noted that in 2019 fewer lawyers were available to support cases of those facing land eviction in the Northeastern part of Thailand. Mr. Sirisak Chaited, independent LGBT and sex worker activist, also noted that health services to LGBT individuals had reduced because less budget was provided to fulfill the health needs of the LGBT community in 2019. Consequently, grassroots in rural areas were left without the required medicines and hormones.
Ms. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Director, Cross Cultural Foundation
“Our provision of legal assistance worsened in 2019 because people lost faith in legal processes. Whenever they sue, they are sued back, which causes mental health issues.”
Experts discussed the sectoral infrastructure of the civil society sector, which includes whether CSOs receive support to build their capacities. It is noticeable that experts agreed that, out of the seven dimensions scored, only this dimension had improved in 2019 compared to 2018. Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Founder of Justice for Peace Foundation and Former Human Rights Commissioner of NHRCT, explained that in 2019, CSOs had received support from Manushya Foundation in order to have an impact against government policies, for example through providing funding to grassroots.
Lastly, experts discussed the public image of CSOs in Thailand in 2019, and overall, they assessed that the public image of CSOs had deteriorated in 2019 compared to 2018. Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Founder of Justice for Peace Foundation and Former Human Rights Commissioner of NHRCT, noted that in 2019 the government had discredited civil society actors and harassed those who had expressed views that differed from the government’s own perspective. Ms. Chavakorn Srisopha, NET Foundation, also pointed out that CSOs were often perceived as ‘troublemakers,’ especially by businesses and the government. Ms. Chavakorn Srisopha explained that civil society actors were excluded from public hearings of companies announcing their plans, ensuring that they would not need to incorporate the feedback of opposing civil society actors. Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Working Group for Monitoring on International Mechanisms, provided the perspective of Thailand’s Deep South and pointed out that media channels actively cover CSOs issues, but consequently these media channels are perceived as enemies by the government and are being sued.
Mr. Sirisak Chaited, independent LGBT and sex worker activist
“Even though it was politically motivated, in 2019 issues of the LGBT community received more attention and support, talking about LGBT was a trend. On the other hand, in 2019 there were more discrimination cases against LGBT individuals as social media platforms were used to criticise and bully the LGBT community.”
Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network
“As people fighting for land rights, in the past we were perceived as extremists and violent. But since last year, after many of us were sent to prison, people started questioning the situation. The public, including local authorities, started to better understand our issues. Our public image has improved in 2019.”
We would like to thank all the experts present at the meeting, whose contributions and input are significant to raising awareness of the challenges faced by civil society actors in Thailand.
The report, highlighting both the challenges and improvements experienced by civil society actors in 2019, will be launched and disseminated later this year and will serve as a basis to identify the needs of Thai CSOs, in order to build their capacities and defend their civic space.
This experts panel meeting is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through a grant from the Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index project implemented by FHI 360, with Manushya Foundation as country partner.
Download the CSOSI Report for Thailand 2018 here
Access pictures of the Experts Meeting here